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9 Filmmaking Tips from George A. Romero

We honor the late horror icon with a celebration of the lessons he left behind.
George Romero filmmaking
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By  · Published on July 18th, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of George Romero.

This week, we lost one of the most influential filmmakers who ever lived: George A. Romero. Not only did he invent the zombie sub-genre as we know it today, starting with his landmark 1968 feature debut, Night of the Living Dead, but he was a general inspiration to horror and indie filmmakers for decades. Beloved by millions, he was also accessible and helpful to fans and aspiring artists alike, and so it’s actually surprising we haven’t already devoted a Filmmaking Tips column to him. Well, here we are, in tribute, with a super-sized edition highlighting nine lessons from the master.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from George A. Romero

1. Shoot something

Of course, the man who made one of the most classic indie films of all time (again, Night of the Living Dead) would be the type to just say go do it. But it’s the way he says it that makes him stand out. Here’s one way from a 2005 Crazed Fanboy interview:

“These days it’s a lot easier to go and make a movie. So my best advice for people today is go out and do something. Shoot it. Shoot something, get something on film, express yourself. And express if you have a voice, or a style, or try your best to get it out there so that you can walk into the room and not have to talk, but say, “Look, here’s what I did.” It’s like Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat. “Look, I’ve made a hat where there was never a hat!” I think that’s the best thing to do. That part of it’s a lot easier. It’s much harder today to get distributed…

“If you want to do anything that’s genre, and even if it’s not pure genre, but genre as metaphor, or anything you know. People are gonna look at it, “rewr, rewr.” So that part of it’s a lot harder, but I think my best advice, man, is either write it or go out and shoot it. You know, get your richest uncle to give you four hundred bucks! And go out and do it, I mean, that’s really, to some extent, what we did with Night of the Living Dead. Those days were different, I mean, there was no video then, man. Cities the size of Pittsburgh had film labs. The news was on film! It’s where I learned how to do film.”

2. Help someone else shoot something

Not everyone can actually afford to just do it, so Romero suggests another pathway to success in the 1992 book “Dark Visions: Conversations With the Masters of the Horror Film” (also reprinted in “George A. Romero Interviews“):

“I always say the same thing: you have to get around a film production, somehow. The best way is to work your way through the ranks, unless you get real lucky like me and go make an independent movie and it becomes a hit. Then you’ll get a blank check. So I’ll never discourage anybody from going out and trying to make a little movie. That’s cool.

“But if you can’t do that, if you don’t have an uncle who will give you a couple grand, you have to get around somebody else’s production. That means getting to a city where there is state-of-the-art production activity. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are making features, but somewhere there’s an active PBS station, like Boston or Pittsburgh. Some place where you can meet the working professionals, get on the set, work for free if you have to, make relationships. That’s exactly the way it works. It’s all grapevine, and anyone who has the instinct and the talent and the dedication will come and find work.

“It comes down to those old values. One thing about a film production is that it must run efficiently; there is no room for dead wood. So somebody that hangs around by the coffee wagon won’t get hired again, but somebody who is dedicated and works hard and really puts out will get noticed by the people that matter around there, and will get asked to come back again. I’ve never seen it fail, it’s almost automatic. If you have that spark, if you’ve got what it takes, you’ll work. It’s as simple as that — there’s nothing mysterious about it.”

3. It’s all about the story

Horror, as well as any other movie genre, is nothing without a core story idea.

4. Anything is plausible

Think of how ridiculous zombies are. But we have believed in their plausibility, at least in cinema, for almost half a century. Romero gives writing tips in a 2008 Cinefantastique article, and they include one on the issue of believability:

“The very fact that you thought of it means that, somewhere in your mind, it’s believable to you. All you have to do is convince your audience that it’s possible. Here again, you don’t need to get your old science texts to find some backup for your premise. All you need to do is set some rules. Let’s say you dream up a story where a man is stranded, starving on a desert island. All he’s got is a carton of a dozen eggs. In the yolk of one of those eggs, an unborn monster is lurking; cracking the shell will enable it to emerge, eat the island, and eventually eat the man. How do you make this believable? Early in the story, you plant a few seeds: Monsters hang out in egg yolks. Not all egg yolks, but there’s bound to be one in a dozen. If the bad egg is cracked open, the monster will be unleashed. You’re done; that’s all you need to do. People will believe, and each time your character goes to crack open an egg, the audience will howl, ‘No, don’t do it!’” 

George A. Romero in the documentary ‘Birth of the Living Dead’

5. Prioritize

In another 2008 Cinefantastique interview, Romero discusses the issue of not always getting everything you want:

“You’re constantly faced with having to make compromises. I speak to the young aspiring filmmakers, and I say, ‘The most important thing is to know exactly what you want – and to prioritize what you want – because you’re going to have to cut something. You need to go in knowing what the least important thing is, and the next thing, and the next thing. And what the most important thing is – that’s what you have to preserve.’ People don’t get that. I’ve seen so many young filmmakers – even professional filmmakers who get a Hollywood deal – they don’t quite know where to begin, where to end, and they’ll waste a lot of time making this perfect shot, an establishing shot, and then there’s no time left to shoot the dialogue.”

6. Respect your collaborators

Romero wasn’t the sort of filmmaker who ruled with an iron fist. And multiple tips he has to offer are about how much he thought of cinema as a collaborative art. In a list for MovieMaker magazine of 10 things he’d learned making movies, he writes:

“Collaborate, don’t dictate. Every department head has something to offer. Listen and gratefully accept their offerings. They’re moviemakers, too.”

And about those departments:

“Know as much as you can about every crew member’s specialty. You will better appreciate a good job, and you won’t be ripped off by a DP who requisitions an outrageously expensive equipment package.”

For a look at how Romero directed, as well as commentary from his collaborators on how he is as a director, I recommend the film Document of the Dead, which is a documentary on the making of Dawn of the Dead. Here’s a snippet tease:

7. CGI is great for the low-budget filmmaker

The indie horror scene often prides itself and is championed for its loyalty to practical effects, but Romero recommends filmmakers lean on digital wizardry as a kind of “fix it in post” solution to a lot of problems — but mostly the problem of money. He tells Cinema Blend in a 2009 interview:

“I had a gag with a flare gun in this film and there’s a gag with a fire extinguisher and you just can’t do those things mechanically so the CG really helps. And also, when you’re working with a low budget, it gets you off the set quicker. If the gun doesn’t go off, you don’t have to reshoot it; you can paint in the flash. That’s a real advantage when you have to work quickly. When you’re working with a low budget, the most expensive time is the time spent on the set. The words of the day are, ‘Get off the set as quickly as possible’ and so CG enables you to do that.”

8. Stick to your guns

Last fall, Romero was asked by IndieWire what advice he gives young filmmakers. His answer was perhaps less helpful, but maybe more honest, than the rest of these tips:

“You can’t give advice. All you can do is say, ‘Hey, look. Stick to your guns.’ If you have an idea in your heart and you want to try and express that, it’s on you. Whether you express that well enough is on you. The only advice you can give is, ‘Don’t let the bad stuff keep you down.'”

As for one way to avoid the bad stuff, Romero told the LA Times in 1988:

“You have to be very thick-skinned and tenacious to survive in this business. So I try to stay far away from all of it, out in the middle of the country. There’s a lot less scrutiny–nobody ever shows up on my sets. I always imagine the studio execs saying, ‘Where’s he shooting? Pittsburgh? Forget it!'”

9. It’s not a lot of fun

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

It’s no wonder Romero is such an influential filmmaker, not just through the work he produced but also for how he created them. He knows story, he knows shooting on a tight budget, he knows how to play with others, and he’s honest about the pros and cons of the industry. Romero may not rise from the dead — as much as he’s made us believe in the plausibility of zombies — but at least these tips should live on forever to guide hordes of otherwise aimless filmmakers.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.